Americus the Beautiful

AmericusAmericus by M.K. Reed

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Americus is one of the best graphic novels I have read in recent years. I have been meaning to read it for nearly five years, so I am glad I finally managed to catch up with it today. Set in the ficticious town of Americus, the plot centres around a young guy, Neil, who has just started high school in the US (Year 9) and his life. Neil and his best friend, Danny, are ardent fans of a book series called The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde (a thinly veiled Harry Potter lookalike). Danny’s mum is, in the Australian vernacular, a God botherer. She takes it upon herself to “save” Danny from the satanic evils of witchcraft by tearing up the latest installment in the series in front of the local public librarian and then sends Danny to military school so he won’t risk being exposed to the wickedness Americus’ public library. Parents, town officials, school management and the kids square off against one another in various combinations as the fight for the right to read starts a battle for the ages. Neil is a perfectly pitched character – embarrassed by his own mum’s fussing, but grateful for her support when he needs it most; awkward around most people, but starting to find his tribe by the close of proceedings. I loved every page of this fantastic book. There is plenty to say here, and clearly the writer is firmly on the side of reading freedom, but there is room for discussion with young people around the issues this raises. Karma is handed out to all – and the ultimate irony of Danny’s banishment by his mother when he writes to Neil about what he is reading is sweet perfection.
An instant classic and suitable for ages 12 and up.

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X marks my heart

The Poet XThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hot tears of recognition stained my face as I finished reading this in a cafe this morning. Xiomara lives with her twin and parents in Harlem. She is fierce and feisty and has had to defend herself against unwanted male attention, thanks to a early-maturing body, for a long time. Constantly warned by her fervently religious mother about the perils of her own body, X writes poetry to escape and to make sense of a world that constantly tells her to be ashamed of who she is.

When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced
by insults.
I’ve forced my skin just as thick as I am.

X becomes involved romantically with a boy named Aman, who loves her for her words, and her heart, rather than what her body appears to promise. Encouraged by her English teacher, X joins a poetry club at school and finds her tribe; like-minded souls whose emotions spill onto the page just like hers.
The suffocation of Xiomara’s life, under the searing gaze of her judgemental and punitive mother, is palpable. Always being told what she is not allowed to do or allowed to be because she is a girl, X pours her hopes, dreams, frustration and anger onto the pages of her precious leather-bound journal.

And I think about all the things we could be
if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.

Caught kissing Aman one day, X’s life spirals out of control and what comes next for her is devastating, terrifying, and agonising. My heart ached and broke for this wonderful girl, and for her twin brother, as they faced gut-wrenching choices about what comes next.
I held this book to my chest when I finished it, trying to imprint Xiomara and her poetry onto my heart. I didn’t need to; they were already there, and there they will stay. I think this is probably the best YA I have read all year, and possibly WILL BE the best I have read all year. It will take something remarkable to top it.
Highly and enthusiastically recommended. Do not wait. Do not “put it on your list”.

Read it. Now.

Big Money

MunmunMunmun by Jesse Andrews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having not read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I was not sure what to expect from this Jesse Andrews offering. Having heard a little more about Me and Earl, I am really glad I have not read it yet. This book sounds like a HUGE departure from that one. In the world Andrews has created in MunMun, how much cash you have determines how big you are – literally. The more munmun you have, the more upscale you are. If you have only a few hundred munmuns, you are ten inches tall. if you have 2 million, you are the size of a house or bigger. It is a most disarming premise and difficult to wrap your head around at first. What is clear though is that the smaller people are in peril every day of their lives. Middlepoors and middleriches (the in-between sizes) step on their houses, or worse, their cats eat the Littlepoors. It is a harsh existence and our hero, Warner, and his sister, Prayer, are locked in a struggle to improve their situation by earning more munmuns. Opportunities to do this are limited. The less you have, the less you have access to – and turning to crime, or selling yourself to the bigger citizens feels like the only way to make things change.
This book is a searing satire with is gaze firmly on the USA and the policies of Trump Republicanism. The more is more philosophy of the current presidency, and the willingness to leave the “little guy” behind, despite their beautiful dreams of another life, is to the fore here. The closing scenes of the book are tinged with hope, but only because there is decimation before. I won’t say any more, because I hate spoilers, but this book must be read to be believed. I have never read anything like it, although there are echoes of Gulliver’s Travels in the way the society views those who are not “one of them”. Lots of otherness, lots of things to think about. Definitely worth the effort of bending your mind around this version of the Yewess.

Nothing but net

The CrossoverThe Crossover by Kwame Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Crossover, Kwame Alexander has produced an evocative and heartfelt love song to basketball, and an honest look at sibling rivalry and family conflict. Thirteen year old Josh and Jordan are twin brothers, both immensely talented and members of the same high school basketball team. At 13 years old, they have their whole lives ahead of them, and pushing them to greater heights is their Dad, Charlie, himself a former basketball champion.
As the season progresses, Josh finds Jordan, once his closest companion, drifting away into a relationship with a new arrival, Alexis. Coupled with a sense of abandonment, Josh also sees his father’s health deteriorating and experiences a sense of powerlessness that is palpable.
The structure of this verse novel works really well as it manipulates language to emphasise Josh’s growing loneliness, as well as the excitement and adrenalin-rush of the basketball games he and Jordan play in. In fact, once the story kicks in, one forgets it is a verse novel- and that is a great strength of the writing here.
Some readers struggle with verse novels because of the short form of the text, but I think this really adds to The Crossover, giving it an immediacy and verve that compliments its subject matter.
Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Panic – don’t.

PanicPanic by Sharon M. Draper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I expected big things from this novel as Sharon Draper is a popular writer in our library. Out of My Mind has been a big middle school favourite this year and I was interested to see how Draper would tackle the meaty subject matter of this book.
I was, in the end, disappointed by both the writing and how the abduction, rape and rescue of central character, Diamond, was handled. This book started out okay – with a group of friends at a dance school preparing for a showcase performance. Two of the girls, Mercedes and Diamond go to the mall to buy new tights and only one of them makes it home. Diamond is enticed away by a smooth talking stranger (Thane English) and finds herself in a terrifying and perilous situation. The reader sees her drugged, tied up and abused by numerous men in the name of video “entertainment”. It is a hard read. Her friends don’t seem too worried by her disappearance at first – perhaps this is an American phenomenon – if this happened here it would be all over social media in a matter of hours.
As well as the abduction of Diamond, the other issue in this book is partner abuse. Layla, a talented dancer, is verbally and physically abused by her boyfriend Donny. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be enough concern from her friends about this. They all talk about what is happening, but no-one seems brave enough to talk to HER about it. Donny is controlling and leaves bruises on her regularly and I found it difficult to believe that even the dance teacher (who must have seen Layla in leotards and dance gear regularly) failed to notice anything.
I got very impatient with this book. Mercedes, Layla,and Diamond speak in what I assume is supposed to be some sort of “street” talk, which sounds forced and ridiculous. Justin, the only male teen (other than the abusive Donny) felt like the only “real” character to me. He is caring, concerned, sensitive, but also struggles to make sense of what is going on both with Diamond’s disappearance and Layla’s abusive relationship. It is interesting to me as I have written about this book as an example of “YA realism” for a Uni essay because it hits a lot of markers present in other realist novels, but overall the effect is more of hyper-realism.
I also found an undercurrent of victim blaming in this novel. It is covert, but it is there, lurking in the background, particularly in relation to Diamond and her conduct and what it has led to.
I was actually asked to remove this book from the library by another library staffer because she had a complaint from a student about the “disturbing” content. I refused, because even an average book about these topics is better than none at all, and there are lessons to be learned from reading this novel. Draper, while not being graphic, does not pull punches in describing Diamond’s ordeal and that is a good thing. There is nothing pretty about rape, nothing attractive about being robbed of all control over what happens to you. In this, the novel excels. The resolution of the Layla/Donny situation is a satisfying one, but the rest of the novel’s conclusion left me shaking my head.
I would not recommend this book if you can find a better, preferably Australian, alternative. Try Stolen: A Letter to My Captor or Hostage as other options.

I would not give this book to anyone under 14 to read, unless you were confident they could handle the subject matter.

From one boy to another….

The Boy at the Top of the MountainThe Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The day I read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I knew I had read something life-changing. The story of Bruno and Shmuel is one I will never forget. It is possible that this new book by John Boyne just might be of the same calibre.
Pierrot is a young Parisian boy who lives with his parents in a time of great upheaval. Pierrot’s father is a WWI returned serviceman with symptoms of what we would now recognise as PTSD. After his father’s suicide, Pierrot’s mother becomes gravely ill and before he really understands what is happening, seven year old Pierrot is living in an orphanage. Fortunately he is not there long as his paternal aunt, whom he has never met, arranges for him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is the housekeeper in a house on an Austrian mountain top. The staff treat the owner of the house, Herr Hitler, with the utmost fear and respect. Pierrot has arrived at the Berghof.
Straight away, life changes for Pierrot. His aunt buys him Austrian clothes, and tells him from now on he will be called “Pieter”. She tells him it is for his own safety and he must not ever mention his best friend from Paris, Anshel Bronstein. Beatrix and the chauffeur, Ernst, tell Pieter that his life depends on not mentioning his old life in France at all.
It is interesting that Boyne chose the name Pierrot for this child protagonist, as Pierrot is a stock theatre character known as ‘the sad clown’. Pieter has to dress up and pretend to be someone else, as Pierrot the clown does, and Pieter must charm and win over Herr Hitler in order to be allowed to stay, just as Pierrot dressed up and acted the fool to win over Columbine.
Day by day, month by month, Pieter becomes part of life at the Berghof. He greatly admires Herr Hitler, his benefactor, and he joins the Hitler Youth to honour him. His aunt can see he is changing, becoming a model Hitlerjugend, and she is powerless to stop it. Forced to disown his Jewish friend Anshel (left behind in Paris), and abandon his true heritage, Pieter is determined to fit in and be accepted by Hitler as a “model citizen” of the Reich. Pieter begins to watch the staff at the Berghof, including his aunt and Ernst, and he becomes someone they are fearful of. Buoyed by this feeling of power over others, Pieter tries to impress a girl from school, Katarina, with stories of his life at the Berghof, but she is unmoved.
As Pieter becomes more and more entrenched in life at the Berghof, he becomes closer and closer to Hitler and drawn away from Aunt Beatrix. When he overhears Beatrix and Ernst talking about “stopping” the Fuhrer, Pieter is on high alert. At the staff Christmas Eve party, Pieter stops Hitler eating a piece of stollen poisoned by Ernst and Beatrix and their fate, and his, is sealed. On Christmas morning, as they are shot as traitors, Pieter tells himself, “she was a traitor, just like Ernst, and traitors must be punished.” His transformation is complete. Pierrot the French boy is now Pieter the Nazi.
The rest of the novel is an examination of a descent into evil. It is difficult to feel sympathy for Pieter as he throws his power around, hurting many other people in the process, but it is important to remember he is a product of his environment and his need to belong and feel accepted. These are powerful needs and emotions and this novel demonstrates how they can control and alter one’s life forever.
If The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a study of how one man’s insanity can destroy an entire culture, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a study of how one culture’s complicity can destroy one young man. Equally as powerful, and a wonderful companion to his first novel, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is an intense experience. I thought about this book for days after I had finished it, especially the ending (not revealed here because of my no-spoiler policy), and I still can’t completely let it go.
An absolute must-read. For ages 14 and up.

Three Wonders of the World

Auggie & Me: Three Wonder StoriesAuggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of three novellas is a must for anyone who read and enjoyed Palacio’s debut novel, Wonder . The story of Auggie Pullman touched millions and in this book, three of the characters whose lives were affected by Auggie in different ways are the protagonists. After being so moved by Wonder, I was sceptical about reacting in the same way to these stories. If anything, these are even more moving because we are able to see deep into these characters’ minds and emotions.
“The Julian Chapter” centres on Auggie’s nemesis, Julian Albans. In his introduction to this book, Palacio explains this was a story he had to write. Many of the letters he received after writing Wonder were about how mean Julian was to Auggie. Readers wrote asking why he had to be that way. Palacio decided he had better tell them. The story that unfolds lifts the lid on Julian’s home life, and his past. His bullying behaviour in the first book is not glossed over, nor is it excused. What the reader does get is a keen insight as to how this kind of behaviour can happen, and how it can so easily get out of control. We meet Julian’s paternal grandmother, a Frenchwoman who loves her grandson, but doesn’t let him get away with anything. It is she who draws the Auggie saga out of Julian and tells him an unforgettable story that will change him, and the reader, forever. Julian is still not a likeable character – he is spoilt, childish and over-indulged by his parents – but by the end of his chapter there is hope he is becoming a more sensitive human being.
“Pluto” is Christopher’s story. Auggie’s long-standing friend who has moved away, has been affected by his relationship with Auggie all his life. The reader is taken back to the first time Christopher really understood how different his friend is. We see him creating a world that is safe and reliable for Auggie – and we see how hard it has been for him sometimes. It is clear there are moments when Christopher struggles with being Auggie’s mate. He sometimes feels resentment when his mother helps out Isabel and Nate (Auggie’s parents) and then his own family moves away, he resents having to keep in touch with Auggie – when all he wants to do is develop his new friendships and play in the after-school rock band. All the way through this story the one thing that shines through again and again is Christopher’s gentle good nature. He is a kind person and coming straight after Julian’s story it really stands out.
The last story, “Shingaling”, is perhaps the most revealing. Charlotte Cory who, along with Julian, and Jack Wall was asked to befriend Auggie when he started middle school, is living through a time of change. As well as meeting Auggie, she is going through something many girls face – friendship group changes. She talks about the “boy war” that started after the winter break in Wonder – where the boys all took sides for or against Auggie after Jack Wall hit Julian. Charlotte’s best friend, Ellie, has moved on to the “popular” group and now Charlotte is trying to find her way to a new friendship group. There is pressure for Charlotte to declare herself on the “right” side of the war and she refuses to do so, which just makes the girls more agitated than they already are. Charlotte, Ellie and some of the other girls audition for a prestigious dance production at school and Charlotte, Summer (Auggie’s close friend) and Ximena (a “popular” girl) are chosen. These girls don’t have much in common on the surface, but as they talk to each other, they discover there is a lot of common ground. Once the girls learn more about one another, they become friends, although none of them really publicise the fact at school – there is still a political balance to worry about. Charlotte’s journey through the friendship minefield is something MANY readers will instantly recognise. What the reader learns by reading this story is that everyone is struggling with something– in fact that is the overarching theme in all of these stories.
The quote Palacio uses at the beginning of “The Julian Chapter” really sums up what his book is trying to say:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Ian Maclaren.
Every middle school student should read this book, heck, every human being should read this book.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.

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Wonder-Full

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, this book is all about page 270. I can’t tell you what happens, except to say it is a moment that literally made tears spring to my eyes.
R.J. Palacio has written a beautiful story. A story about pain, about love, about hardship, about forgiveness, and a story full of hope.
August (Auggie) Pullman has been an outsider all his short life. Born with life-altering facial abnormalities due to a series of genetic misfortunes, he has been home-schooled by his doting mother, until it is time for Middle School. Now he is enrolled at Beecher Prep and is thrust into the swirling waters of junior high school. Auggie is an engaging protagonist. Not only is he intelligent, he is also witty and courageous. He knows how people react to his appearance, to the very last tic or sideways glance. Many find it hard to look him in the eye, let alone talk to and interact with him. Julian, a boy full of his own importance thanks to superficial parents, is one student who is not prepared to make Auggie’s life easy at school. Julian uses his considerable social influence to directly and indirectly bully and torment Auggie on a daily basis. To his credit, Auggie stands up to this pretty well because he doesn’t really care what Julian thinks of him.
Auggie has a few friends at school by the time his birthday rolls around and his friends sustain him – until he accidentally hears one of them, Jack, speaking badly of him behind his back. It is clear that Auggie values truth and loyalty in his friends most of all, and Jack has to work hard to eventually win back Auggie’s trust.
There are other relationships going through rocky times in this novel. Auggie’s Mum is struggling with his growing independence and not sharing every second of his day, and she struggles with Auggie’s older sister, Via, for similar reasons as Via starts Senior High School. Via has her own problems as her old circle of friends rejects her and she is forced to strike out on her own to find a new group to hang out with. Via is also highly protective of her brother and is there to offer him some good advice about how the politics of the school ground work.
Having the different characters tell part of the story worked well, particularly as the reader is able to see the various conflicts in the novel from different points of view – a point about empathy being well-made without ramming it down the reader’s throat.
Auggie’s resilience, the loyalty of his small group of friends, and his loving, supportive family make this a book with irresistible appeal. When Auggie finally makes it to the school camp that will change everything (a la page 270), we are totally with them, and rooting for Auggie all the way. The ending made me feel happy, and proud of the characters. I can’t tell you, spoilers, but I think it will make you feel that way too.
This book has been a huge hit at my school and across the globe, and now I know why. It teaches the young people reading it that life, even when it feels terrible and there are things about your life you can’t change no matter how much you wish you could, does get better – you just have to give it time and have self-belief. It’s a great message, really well communicated. It’s wonder-ful.
For ages 10 and up.

Silence is not golden

SpeakSpeak by Laurie Halse Anderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished this book in less than 2 hours. So compelling was the story, I could not, literally, put it down. Mel (Melinda) was a protagonist who struck a chord with me immediately. The soul-destroying microcosm of the world that high school can be came flooding back as I read this amazing Laurie Halse Anderson novel. After hearing Laurie speak about this book at the Reading Matters conference a few weeks ago, it was a must-read and it did not disappoint.

Mel had friends, good grades, and an okay family life before starting high school, but over the summer break something happened to change that. At first we are in the dark, trying to guess what has led to this state of affairs, but slowly Mel starts to reveal her story to us. There was a party, and Mel called the cops. There is a hint of something more under the surface, something that has made Mel withdrawn and increasingly unable to function normally. In her darkening world the only spots of light come from Art class, where her teacher Mr Freedman encourages her to express her inner emotions, and Biology where her lab partner is David Petrakis, who at least treats her like a human being. Her parents are clueless and not once do they really TALK to her, which was frustrating to read. When Mel’s parents are called to a meeting with the Principal and guidance counsellor, her mother cries, “why are you doing this to us?” This kind of sums up their relationship and my fervent hope for Mel was that this would change.

And then she connects with Ivy, from her Art class. Without even realising it is happening, she starts to claw her way back. One of my favourite moments in the novel is when Heather, a fair weather friend if there ever was one, tries to get Mel to help her decorate the prom venue after being left in the lurch by the rest of the popular girls. When Mel refuses to help her, Heather whines and carries on and Mel totally blows her off. I felt triumphant for her as I read this sequence, having been the girl in high school (and beyond) who often was put on the spot by “friends” to help with various things and could not say “no”. I know the power of NO, and it was great to see Mel embracing it and reclaiming some of herself.

I found the resolution of this story to be realistic and satisfying. I wanted to cheer, but instead I cried. I felt the release Mel felt as all the truth about the events of the party were revealed and she stepped up to take her life back from the brink.

I think every thirteen year old should read this, girl or boy – doesn’t matter. There is much to be learned in this novel. Laurie is a wonderful writer and her language is so evocative it is a pleasure to read. Another back catalogue for me to catch up with.
Highly recommended.

When lies become the truth

We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Just wow. This book is an intricate web of smoke and mirrors. A searing portrait of “old money” and all the evil it can bring out in people. A heartbreaking look at sadness, and longing for things past. Lockhart has drawn her characters, particularly Cady (Cadence), very well.
Two summers ago, Cady had an accident that no-one wants to talk about. She can’t remember it as she hit her head in the accident and now suffers crippling migraines. After a summmer away, Cady returns the next summer to the place where the accident happened, the family’s island, Beechwood. Through Cady’s efforts to remember what happened that fateful night, we learn about her cousins and past summers through flashbacks, and through the conversations she has with them on her return in the now.
Little by little Cady begins to remember snippets of what really happened the night of the accident. What follows is devastation, but I can’t tell you what or who – because that would spoil it. In fact, don’t let anyone tell you ANYTHING substantial about this book, because you need to approach it, for the most part, cold. Just pick it up. Read it. READ it. Marvel at the sophisticated world of the Sinclairs, and be grateful for what you have in your own little world.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.